The Pyramids as Project

Construction and Management in Ancient Times

Humans are amazing story tellers. We live and thrive on ideas and beliefs because they have the tendency to make life just a little more exciting. There’s always something mystical to look forward to and there is always some incredible story to look back on while thinking to ourselves, ‘wow that’s interesting.’

There are many mysteries, found all over the world, that baffle even the most scientific minds: beautiful artefacts that have been carved perfectly out of stone or structures built so well that they have endure until today and will probably survive for another few millennia. In Mesoamerica, there was once a thriving Mayan civilisation extending from parts of present-day Mexico through to the modern nations of Guatemala, Belize, northern El Salvador and western Honduras. Here one can find some truly impressive ancient structures; boasting solid, smooth walls made of stone blocks, some four metres long by two metres high by half a metre thick, these walls have five-centimetre holes drilled right down the middle as if some sort of conduit was meant to be installed there.

It doesn’t really matter what the holes were for; the real question is, how did an ancient society drill such a perfect hole in a stone that even today can only be drilled with the use of diamond or tungsten carbide drill bits? How did the ancient Mayans manufacture a drill bit that hard and that long? There must be an answer, but it is one we have yet to find; it’s simply an astonishing feat of engineering that such heavy blocks of stone match up so well and that they were cut so smoothly in the first place.

Ancient construction is something of a mystery; we know that one resource many ancient civilisations had at their disposal was a great deal of manpower. Using an expansive labour force, the Egyptians built the largest pyramids in the world with little more than their bare hands. Keep in mind that these pyramids are made from perfectly carved blocks so large that one may weigh up to 20 tonnes. It is estimated to have taken from a few thousand workers to 100 thousand workers to complete these giant structures.

Egypt wasn’t the only civilisation to make pyramids, and in fact the structures are found all over the world. Perhaps the most interesting question is how it came to be that distinct civilisations existing at separate times in separate areas of the world would build structures with the exact same design principle. There was no method of travelling that far in ancient times and certainly no way that one would make it across the ocean. It would be entirely possible that an early civilisation could travel from Egypt to Greece and build structures with the same principle, but to say that someone with this kind of engineering knowledge could cross the ocean and bring it to the Americas is totally preposterous. How then did the Mayans end up building structures that were the same in principle as the Egyptians?

The most famous pyramid and the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still remaining, is The Great Pyramid of Giza. Originally 146.5 metres (481 feet), the Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years. The base of the pyramid was a square, 230.4 meters; its mass is estimated at around 5.9 million tonnes and the construction comprises approximately 2.3 million blocks. To make this amazing structure, it would have taken 20 years, assuming that 12 blocks could be placed each hour and the work would continue around the clock.

The blocks are made of limestone or solid granite, the limestone blocks likely cut at a local quarry by workers with chisels and then transported across the Nile river. The granite blocks, mainly found in the pharaoh’s chamber, weigh in at anywhere from 25 tonnes to 80 tonnes and came from Aswan, more than 800 kilometres away. The designers faced a daunting task; they had to design and redesign to optimise the structure so that it could be built before the death of the pharaoh Khufu, for this would be his final resting place. It is estimated that 5.5 million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite, and 500,000 tons of mortar were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid.

It is theorised that blocks were cut by workers who would drive wooden wedges into the stone which were then soaked with water. As the wood absorbed the water, it would expand and crack the stone. Limestone is generally softer than other types of rock, which is part of the reason why it was possible for the Egyptians to shape it with the tools that were available to them. The Ancient Egyptians had access to copper, bronze and iron tools such as crude chisels, rasps and hatchets. Metal tools were rarely of high quality because the Egyptians had no way of making fire hot enough to fully melt the metal.

Some believe that the Egyptian pyramids’ construction workers were slaves, but discoveries in nearby worker camps have told us that they were most likely skilled workers. According to project management experts, the project likely used no fewer than forty thousand workers, all of whom needed payment of water, bread, beer and cloth.

No doubt, managing such a project with such a tremendous workforce would be an enormous task; project managers would have to make sure that every detail of the building process was thoroughly planned. The managers would need to work with breakdowns of the structure, make diagrams to illustrate the work sequence, plan the path of work tasks and ensure that one important task could be done by one group in a manner that wouldn’t interrupt another group’s efforts (sound familiar?). The project included the design of a ramp wide enough for workers to pull a block up to where it was needed without destroying anyone or anything in its path, and while allowing work to continue around it.

The majority of the blocks used within the pyramid were fit together with extreme precision, particularly the ones used for the outer casing and the outer walls of inner chambers. The mean opening in the joints measures only 0.5 millimetres, according to measurements taken by Egyptologists in the late 1800s. The average error of length on each of the pyramid’s sides is a mere 58 inches.

There are many theories as to how the pyramids were built; some contradict others and some seem like pure nonsense. There are arguments as to whether the blocks could have been somehow lifted into place, or if they were actually dragged or rolled. The pyramid is furthermore the object of some pseudoscientific theories which propose that it was built with the help of extraterrestrials; these theories, however, ignore the preponderance of archaeological evidence.

Today, nothing remains of the plans that were used to construct the great pyramids. In these modern times, building a pyramid would be a relatively simple project that would involve having blocks machined to specification, getting them delivered a few at a time via barge or truck and then lifting them into place with a crane. This type of construction would probably take no more than months if everything was planned well. The irony is that in 2012, the labour and resources that would be used for such an endeavour, however simple it may seem, would be a terrible misuse of labour hours and material because of how little habitable space there actually is inside of a pyramid. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, only has two small chambers, a few hallways and one grand gallery; the Pharaoh didn’t even have a bathroom!

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 17, 2019, 6:25 AM AEDT